Category: Australia 2017 (Page 1 of 3)

Koala Population on Magnetic Island, Conservation Status, and Physiology

Koala Physiology and Behavior by Kunal Thakur

The koala, phascolarctos cinereus, is a species which can only be found in Australia and is part of the marsupial family which give birth to undeveloped young which climb onto the pouch and latch on to the teat until complete development. As an arboreal marsupial herbivore, the animal lives in Eucalypt forests along the Eastern region of Australia including Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. Descending from a group of much bigger animals in the Australian environment, the koala is the only remaining member of the Phascolarctidae family with its closest relatives being the wombats.  In order to survive, the koala has evolved specifically to become the only mammal that can survive on leaves of the Eucalyptus tree alone. Because of the low energy and nutrient output that the Eucalyptus tree leaves provide, the koala has had to evolve several physiological and behavioral traits in order to successfully use the tree as a source of food. In order to make the most of the food source, the Koalas only eat from 10% of the 600 different species of the Eucalyptus tree with an even stronger preference of only 5% to maximize the number of nutrients which can be obtained as some species of the tree are more nourishing than others. The leaves of the specific species are chosen for their protein content and low indigestible fiber and lignin amounts. The koala has also evolved a liver which works to isolate and excrete the toxins which make the Eucalyptus tree indigestible for other animals. With an extremely long digestive process, the koalas use hindgut fermenters and long caecum with specific bacteria to digest the fiber of the Eucalyptus tree. To raise the young, the koala mothers must make a “pap” which consists of a mixture of milk and tree leaves to feed the koala young to make sure they become used to toxins and bacteria which comes with the Eucalyptus leaves. Behavior and lifestyle of the Koala has also been adapted to their diet. Because of the lack of nutrients of the leaves of the Eucalyptus tree, the koalas follow a low energy diet and can spend up to 21 hours a day resting. Their brain has evolved to become much smaller to conserve energy for the animal and this causes the species to have no complex communication and live in solitude not doing much other than eating and sleeping. There can be no extended maternal care because of the energy required to take care of the young and the mother will leave as soon as the developing koalas can eat the leaves of the Eucalyptus tree. With curved, sharp claws and opposable digits, the koala is well adapted to climb trees and also grasp branches on the Eucalypt. The animal has incisors and cheek teeth which allow for it to take in leaves and cut and grind the leaves down which leads to better digestion. As the koala has evolved very specifically to match its niche diet of Eucalyptus tree leaves, the animal does not have many other ecological interactions. The koala has few natural predators as it spends most of its life up in the high branches of the Eucalyptus trees and also does not perform any other role in the Australian ecosystem. By fitting into a very specialized role through repeated evolution, the koala has eliminated its ecological role in the Australian environment.

A Wild Koala on Magnetic Island

Koala Conservation by Lin Cao

Found exclusively in Australia, koalas have become an icon for the country and its unique wildlife. They are under federal protection, and it is illegal to hunt and kill koalas. However, they are under pressure from many other threats, and their populations have crashed by up to 80% in certain urban areas.

Though koalas are protected, their habitats are not. Habitat fragmentation is a major issue, and as development projects force koalas into smaller areas, stress and overcrowding have caused additional problems. Chlamydia easily spreads among tightly packed individuals, and the disease eventually leaves individuals blind and vulnerable to many other dangers. Deaths from car collisions and encounters with dogs and cats also increase as contact between koalas and humans increases. Another hazard for koalas is high intensity fires. After a long period of fire suppression in Australia, many areas of eucalypt forest have high amounts of unburned fuel left, and accidental or sudden fires may flare out of control and kill koalas who are unable to escape. Climate change represents a major challenge for koalas. Koalas exclusively eat eucalyptus leaves, which are quite nutrient poor. They consume massive amounts of leaves each day to acquire nitrogen for amino acid and protein synthesis, and the leaves also provide a source of water. However, climate change has created a shift in eucalyptus leaf content. Nitrogen levels are decreasing while carbon levels increase. Water content has also decreased. Both of these changes place additional pressures on koalas and their current feeding habits.

With the challenges they are facing, koala conservation has come under the spotlight and generated a few debates. Koalas play no ecological role. For instance, they have few natural predators and do not help propagate any plants. Much of the push for koala conservation comes from public sentiment for koalas as an icon for Australia rather. However, some wonder if there has been too much of a focus on iconic or charismatic species like koalas when there are much more vulnerable or important species. For instance, termites play an important ecological role in Australia and are facing challenges as humans brand them as pests and work to eradicate them, but there are few efforts to protect them or increase awareness of their importance. In contrast, there are many koala advocacy and conservation groups, and much of the general public has some knowledge about koalas. Though the debate rages on, one potential role for the koala is as an ambassador species. Certain organizations use more iconic animals to engage the general public and then use that engagement to promote other species. Koala conservation can also have umbrella effects. To save a koala, a eucalyptus forest has to be saved, and other species dependent on that forest may be saved as well. Koala conservation is also a good idea from an economic standpoint. Koala-related tourism is an important source of revenue, and estimated expenditure on zoo visits, koala photos, and koala souvenirs is nearly $336 million per annum. Finally, some argue that koalas should be conserved because only human error has caused their populations to decline. They came to exist in Australia and it is only fair to preserve their natural status. While there is some debate around koala conservation, it is clear that as koala populations continue to respond to environmental pressures, koala management attitudes strategies will have to adapt as well.



Koala Population Field Work by Ben Lasley


Today we worked with Jules from the Billabong Sanctuary and Rachel from the Koala Park to continue research that James Cook University started on Koala populations on Magnetic Island. After breakfast, we biked to the first of the two sites and learned about the ongoing experiment and the procedures. The fifteen were split into three teams of five, with four in each team designated as collectors and one designated as the “sniffer” for the team. The sniffer was tasked with differentiating old koala scat from new koala scat. The new koala scat, which is up to 57 days old, smelled faintly of eucalyptus leaves, whereas the old scat, greater than 57 days, was odorless. The different teams laid out fifty meter by 1.9 meter transects through the bush by attaching rope to a beginning point, like a tree, and measuring 50 meters onward. The width was controlled by a 1.9 meter stick that was split evenly so that .95 meters was on either side of the rope. Two teams of two started on both sides of the 50 meters and were given gloves and miniature rakes to comb through the underbrush.

The teams were advised on the threat of death adders and taught the procedures if someone was bitten by a snake. The three teams were given one hour to hopefully finish the transect and quantify the number of old and new scat. As the teams would comb through the scat, the sniffers would be behind them going through the retrieval bags and sorting the koala scat into old and new bags. Additionally, collectors would occasionally pick up misshaped scat, only to discover that it was wallaby scat. The wallaby scat definitely did not smell of eucalyptus leaves. As the teams progressed throughout the transects, they encountered ferocious green ants and when their nests were slightly disturbed, they poured out and bit numerous people.

Another component of the transect was the identification of different trees within the various transects. While one group only had Morleton Grey Ash and Popular Gum trees, other groups had Red Gum Eucalyptus trees, which are the favorite food of the koalas. At the end of the hour, two groups had finished, while the other group had sixteen meters left in the transect. As the three groups complied the number of scats, one group only had 190 koala scats, while the other two groups had over 400 koala scats each. This was attributed to the various species in the transect, with one transect having a large and mature Red Gum, the favorite of koalas.

After cleaning up the site, the group biked to a koala hotspot. They were able to see a total of 6 Koalas, including a mother and her joey, two solitary koalas, and a mother and offspring pair that had recently split off. After returning to the hostel, the data was interpreted and explained to the team. The data would be compiled into a spreadsheet and then fed into several equations to determine the population of koalas on Magnetic Island and the migration patterns depending on the season. The field work was dirty and sometimes smelly, but the experience was worth it.

A Look at Koala Population Studies on Magnetic Island


By Danny Oh


On July 2nd, the UNC Study Abroad group went to an open mixed eucalyptus forest to assist in koala population size studies. We helped Jules Funnell, a ranger at the Billabong Sanctuary, perform the fecal standing crop method for estimating the population size of koalas at the site. This was part of James Cook University’s initiative in beginning a long-term population study of koalas on Magnetic Island. The study began last year, and since then, there have been several ecotourism groups that have contributed to the growing dataset.


Koalas did not previously exist on Magnetic Island: European colonization of mainland Australia led to the development of the koala fur trade. By 1924, Koalas were extinct in South Australia, and the fur trade had moved up to Queensland. In 1919, the QLD government announced a 6-month open season on koalas, and one million koalas were killed in that season alone. In 1927, the season reopened and over 800,000 koalas were killed within one month. Public outrage led the government to declare koalas a “protected species”, and koalas were introduced on islands, such as Kangaroo Island and Magnetic Island, as insurance populations in the late 1930s. Although they provide no ecological role within the ecosystem, they are valued highly within the ecotourism industry, bringing in a A $3.2 billion profit annually and 30,000 jobs. Koala population studies have been implemented in several states of mainland Australia, and the populations were carefully monitored every several years. However, no one knew exactly what the koala population size was on Magnetic Island.


In 2011, McGregor et. al. did the first koala population studies on Magnetic Island in the peer reviewed article, The Distribution and Abundance of an Island Population of Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) in the Far North of Their Geographic Range. They performed the Fecal Standing Crop Method (FSCM), where they used GPS designated points along with 100 m transects and collected koala scat. The scat was then separated based on smell of eucalyptus: the new scat retained the smell of eucalyptus (smell lingered for approximately 57 days) while the old scat lost its smell. In the article, 285 transects were analyzed over a time period of 656 hours. The FSCM was validated in a previously published article by CSIRO, and it is favored due to the solitary lifestyle of koalas. They estimated between 800 to 900 koalas on the island today.


It is difficult to estimate the koala populations from the UNC studies. Unfortunately, we do not have the literature that goes into the mathematics in translating scat counts to koala population size. However, we do see the merits of the research: the McGregor 2011 paper did not collect data in disturbed urban areas, which is where we collected scat. The population trends of koalas in urban areas could be valuable in determining their resiliency with encroaching urbanization. In addition, this data is still at its initial steps, since only two years of data have been collected so far. Population dynamics studies use data sets that are collected over a long time. The data set can then be used to observe seasonal variation and population trends of koala population size on Magnetic Island.

Even though we couldn’t really get the actual koala population size, we felt that we had made a great contribution in a growing data set for future groups visiting Magnetic Island. Though the koalas do not provide an ecological role, I did witness their value in the ecotourism industry: I got my picture taken with Claudia at Bungalow Bay Koala Village, and it really is something I will cherish from this trip.

Learn more about McGregor’s koala population study:

Caption: This shows the koala habitats that are projected to disappear within the next half century due to urbanization of coastal areas of East Australia.

This figure from the McGregor 2011 article shows the koala density across Magnetic Island determined using the fecal standing crop method.

Reef HQ and GBRMPA: Managing for the Future

By:  Lin Cao, Ben Lasley and Peggy Mullin

Budgeting for Sustainability by Lin Cao

Reef HQ Aquarium has long been dedicated to sustainability, and “Earth” is included as part of their triple bottom line. It is one of only 15 organizations in Australia to have achieved triple tier ecotourism certification, and over the years it has made large strides towards environmentally friendly practices. In 2006 and 2007, Reef HQ used nearly 2,438 megawatt hours of coal-fired power, enough to power 305 homes for a year. This cost the aquarium about $550,000 a year. At this time, the aquarium had no formal strategies for sustainable use of business resources. However, in 2006 they set a goal of 50% reduction in energy expenditure costs (from 2,438 megawatt hours to 1,200 megawatt hours).

They began by first assessing their current energy expenditure costs, and it was found that the vast majority of their costs came from chilling and pumps. They decided to first tackle issues that could be quickly fixed, and in their first year they performed air-conditioning system maintenance, raised the temperature set point from 23℃ to 24.5℃, tinted windows, removed hot skylights, and installed air curtains. Finally, they tried to improve staff behavior, emphasizing turning off lights whenever possible and closing doors to prevent loss of cooler air. These steps reduced their carbon footprint and brought their power use down by 13%.

At this point a 5-year strategic plan was developed and was the product of energy audits, technical audits, feasibility assessments, and strategic infrastructure planning. After the development of the plan, the Reef HQ team started by focusing on lighting. Though lighting represented only 6% ($18,000) of their total energy expenditure, lighting is easily fixed and has quick payback time, making it a valuable investment. Energy efficient lighting such as dichroic lighting, compact fluorescent lights, and LED lights were used to replace older lights. Reef HQ also imported the first plasma light into Australia. These lights have very low heat output, contain no mercury, produce better quality light, and require significantly lower maintenance. Overall the plasma light produced 50% more light for less than half the power, and while the light was initially expensive, the payback time was only about 2.5 years.

Next, Reef HQ addressed their pump problems. Cheap pumps were costing around $21,300 more per year than the highest quality pumps, so improved pumping systems were installed. Motors were also replaced to increase operating efficiency. In their most extreme example, it cost Reef HQ $1500 to change a pump motor that eventually saved them over $10,000 a year in energy. With one of their major energy drains addressed, Reef HQ then began to examine ways to improve their heating and chilling needs. They put in glass solar tinting and also used reflective roof paint to prevent heat from entering. They also did a comprehensive assessment of heat inefficiency sites. It was found that doors were regularly left open, causing hot spots, and the heat exchangers on aquarium tanks were inefficient. Pipe design also allowed a lot of heat to leak, and an inefficient chiller system stopped and started nearly 20 times a day. To deal with this, a new chilling system was installed with multiple pumps for low load periods. The chiller also had thermal storage to minimize starts and stops in low load periods. Heat exchangers in the aquariums were also replaced with more efficient ones, and a smart building management system was put in place to manage the entire system. This allowed the building to regulate heat use based on activity and time of day, shutting off any systems that were not needed. Though many of these replacements were expensive, the upgrades are expected to save Reef HQ up to $4.8 million in the next 25 years. The final initiative taken by the Reef HQ group was the installation of solar panels. Reef HQ is the only aquarium in the world registered as a power station, and in 2015 the solar power station offset energy consumption by 20 to 30%.

What Reef HQ has accomplished with their energy minimization plan is truly amazing. They met their reduction goals and expanded their business at the same time. As of 2017, the payback for the total of $1.7 million on all of Reef HQ’s sustainability measures from 2007 to 2014 will have been reached.


A Multifaceted Approach to Management of the Great Barrier Reef by Ben Lasley

Reef HQ has indeed accomplished much in the management of their inner mechanisms. However, their outward goal is just as important: the whole and effective management of the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, comprising 344,400 square kilometers, stretching 1400 miles from north of Cape York to Bundaberg in the south. As a reaction to to potential oil drilling in the reef, it was declared a marine park in 1975 and a world heritage site in 1981. In addition to establishing the Marine Park, a federal agency was created in order to oversee and manage the reef. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, with offices in Canberra and Townsville, helps manage commercial fishing, tourism, shipping, traditional activities, and recreation.

The logo of the GBRMPA (Picture courtesy: GBRMPA)

In 2003, a decade long study was completed that analyzed the GBR, finding seventy-six bioregions, and new zoning procedures were established as an insurance policy to protect at least twenty percent of each bioregion. There are seven levels of zoning, from the most lax to extremely stringent. They are general use zones, habitat protection zones, conservation park zones, buffer zones, scientific research zones, marine national park zones, and preservation zones. As the zones increase in significance the limitations on fishing, trawling, trolling, research, boating, tourism increase to the final level of no disturbance other than research. In the roughly fifteen years since the introduction of the zoning laws, there has been an increase in previously reduced species, aided by the protection zones. The no-take and no-entry zones are centers of growth and competition that force the growing populations to spread further out, eventually migrating out of the protected area and in to new areas, increasing the marine park’s distribution of the species. As well, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has released their long term management plans until 2050, targeting the main pollution offenders and their plan of action.

However, there continues to be threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Commercial shipping has increased since 2003, and there are calls for increasing shipping channels to the major ports. The expansion not only impacts the immediate health of the reef through expansion efforts, but also long term. The increase in shipping and shipping channels increases the risks for groundings that could spill coal and oil into the ecosystem. Australia is one of the larger exporters of coal in the world, and the proposed Adani Mine in Western Queensland would increase the exportation of coal to different countries, such as India. Both major political parties have pledged their support, because of the increase in supposed jobs and current political climate, but they have forgotten the economic importance of the Great Barrier Reef for ecotourism and fishing. The support for the Adani coal mine comes at the expense of the Great Barrier Reef, and while one flourishes the other will suffer. As well, climate change will continue to negatively impact the Great Barrier Reef for an extended amount of time. While some may want to curl up and call it quits, this is yet another reason why we should fight for the Great Barrier Reef. Yes, this is an uphill climb, but we cannot give up. We must not give up; we must fight the good fight.


Under Pressure: The Threat of Crown-of-Thorns Sea Stars by Peggy Mullin

The Great Barrier Reef is not dead, but it is stressed. The reasons for large-scale coral bleaching and mortality are vastly varied and complex, surrounding mounting anthropogenic pressures in the area including fishing and shipping ports, as well as large-scale ecological pressures including temperature rise, climate change and global ‘weirding’ of weather. At a more local level, however, one of the most devastating threats to coral reef health are outbreaks of Crown-of-Thorns sea stars.

Crown-of-Thorns sea stars (Acanthaster planci) are large, multi-armed organisms that are native to the Indo-Pacific region. These sea stars feed on a diet of coral polyps from rocky or hard corals, an appetite which is directly incongruous with the simple narrative of coral restoration. Crown-of-Thorns sea stars, or COTS, actually hold a key ecological role in that when they inhabit an area in the right proportions, they prevent overgrowth of rocky or hard corals. However, when they explode in large numbers, known as COTS outbreaks, they can sweep an area and completely devastate a reef’s population of live coral.

This image shows a Crown-of-Thorns sea star engulfing a coral boulder (Picture courtesy: NOAA)

COTS are extremely efficient and have been recorded to move across a reef at speeds of up to 10 kmh according to a display at Reef HQ. The organism accomplishes this using its many arms and tube feet. Like other sea stars, they digest their prey by pushing their stomach outside of their body, engulfing a population of corals and processing them with enzymes from the lining of the stomach. COTS, in particular, possesses venomous spines all along their body, which can cause intense burning and swelling in humans, as well as a lasting effect of nausea.

There is not yet a definitive cause for COTS outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef. Some theorize that it could be linked to a decline in water quality, while others seem to think it may be linked to predator removal. Whatever the cause, outbreaks tend to be cyclical and have increased to unprecedented levels of frequency in the past 10 years, according to data from the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

This graph exhibits the trend of COTS outbreaks in the past 20 years. (Picture courtesy: GBRMPA)

Managing COTS on the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most pressing issues facing Great Barrier Reef ecologists to date. One of the most effective methods of control is the manual injection of bile salts (from the stomachs of oxen) or sodium bisulfate into the body of the sea star. This results in COTS mortality within a week of injection, yet causes no toxicity to the surrounding marine environment.

Injection has proven to be an effective short-term solution, but the greater focus is on long-term goals for the reef ecosystem. According to Reef HQ, these reef-oriented goals include improving water quality, increasing knowledge about reef structure and function, and improving ecosystem resilience in anticipation of future changes to the reef environment. Along with their financial and energy-related goals, Reef HQ is actively working to make steady progress towards education of the en

Along with their financial and energy-related goals, Reef HQ is actively working to make steady progress towards the education of both tourists and locals. The hope is that Reef HQ will act as a key intermediary between scientists and the public to work towards a more clear understanding of the active pressures affecting the Great Barrier Reef area.

Our Eye on the Reef!

  by CJ Miles and Sophia Wilhelm-Demekas

  At Reef HQ, the education center for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), we learned about the Eye on the Reef Program. This program encourages monitoring of the Great Barrier Reef and allows anyone who visits the reef to have the opportunity to participate in the assessment of the reefs health as well as its protection. This program includes an Eye on the Reef App that allows you to report observations, upload photos and videos, and provide up-to-date information about the reef’s condition, and it’s easy to use regardless of your experience level. The app is completely free and also includes an educational aspect that allows you to learn more about the Great Barrier Reef and the species that inhabit it. Another component of the program is the Rapid Monitoring Survey. This survey allows people with a little more time and experience (who can snorkel or dive) to record certain things that they see on the reef using an underwater monitoring slate and relay this information to the GBRMPA. This data includes the presence of protected or iconic species, benthos cover, coral impacts, and the presence of rubbish and pollution. Once participants complete a survey, they can upload it through an online webpage for submission to GBRMPA. Further, an online multimedia training program is also available to help people learn more about how to complete these surveys correctly and upload the information to the webpage. For professionals such as marine scientists, marine tourism operators, and marine rangers, there are even more reef health and impact surveys as well as tourism monitoring surveys that require a little more dedication and time.

     All of the information collected through the Eye on the Reef Program is compiled into a single reporting system that includes an interactive activity map that allows you to see how many surveys of reef health, tourism activity, and rapid monitoring have been taken for each site along the entire GBR in the past two years. This data is available to all registered users and ultimately helps provide . One of the greatest aspects of this program is that it really encourages all kinds of people – professional or tourist, local or international – to get personally involved with the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, creating vested interest in its health and increasing community action and awareness.


This short video provides more information about The Eye on the Reef Program, it’s creation and purpose, and how people can get involved, as well as actual footage of the surveying process.

“Eye on the Reef is a large-scale monitoring program that enables anyone who cares about the Great Barrier Reef to help keep an eye on its health. The program has two community-based tools and two professional tools so, no matter who you are, there’s somewhere you can plug in and give something back to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.”

As study abroad students studying the Great Barrier Reef, we were given the opportunityto participate in the Eye of the Reef program. As a group, we spent 3 full days on a live-aboard boat doing between two and three scuba dives and/or up to five snorkels per day. We stayed in the middle section of the Great Barrier Reef, near Townsville in Northern Queensland. In our time there, we were able to visit three specific sites: Lodestone Reef, Keeper Reef, and Wheeler Reef. On the boat with us was a group of graduate students studying marine biology at James Cooke University who were collecting data and conducting surveys to monitor the health of the Reef. Before each dive or snorkel, we were given a briefing about the specific reef and what species we should expect to see in that area. Then, we were each handed one of three surveys and tasked with completing them during our 40-60-minute swim. The three surveys were called: Reef Search, Coral Watch, and Rapid Monitoring.


Coral Watch was a survey focused solely on monitoring the type and color of the coral colonies on site. As we swam, we were supposed to choose 20 of the coral colonies we passed and note the type of coral (table, branched, boulder, or soft) and its coloring. Because many coral colonies were multi-colored, we were meant to record both the lightest and darkest shade present. This was significant because many of the corals had undergone bleaching (loss of color due to release of zooxanthellae) in only some polyps and not the entire colony.


The Rapid Monitoring survey was slightly different because, rather than focusing solely on the coloring of coral colonies, it concentrated on the overall benthic cover by comparing percentages of live and dead coral. The method of surveying was also more complex and thought-out than the other two surveys. The survey process was as follows:

First, the surveyor (scuba diving or snorkeling) had to designate a survey area by selecting a central point and extending the area five meters around this central point in all directions, creating a circle of ten diameters as their area to monitor.

Then, as visible in the picture to the right, the percentage of differing benthos covering had to be estimated and recorded. Several images were provided in order to visually aid participants in making estimations on such a large scale. The different benthos covers to be recorded were: macroalgae, live coral, recently dead coral (white), live coral rock, coral rubble, and sand. Additionally, specific questions were asked about whether obvious bleaching was present and whether coral predators were seen in the survey site (Crown-of-thorns starfish and Drupella snails). Finally, more specific questions were asked regarding the presence and type of rubbish within the site.

While the Coral Watch survey provided information about the health of 20 randomly selected coral colonies purely based on their coloring, this Rapid Monitoring survey provided data about how much damaged coral there was compared to live coral as well as about the presence of potential threats to the coral colonies within the area.

However, as it was only focused on a circular area of ten-meter diameter, many of these surveys would need to be completed at once in order to provide any reliable, significant data.

Taking part in surveys like these made us focus much more as students on what it was we were seeing and what the consequences of coral bleaching actually looked like. After each survey session, we would all come back onto the boat, compile our data, and evaluate whether any meaningful conclusions could be made from our analysis. Although the surveys aren’t perfect and can only provide limited information about the state of the Great Barrier Reef, the fact that Eye on the Reef provides them to the larger public and encourages individuals to take action is important for spreading awareness and inspiring action to protect it.




Climate Change and Resilience Management on the Great Barrier Reef

by Danny Oh and Sophia Wilhelm-Demekas

Although 97% of climate change scientists agree on climate change, there still seems to be some debate in the general public. According to ABC News, a survey of over 2,000 Australians shows that 77% believe climate change is occurring. The United States is still behind on this matter with the general public agreeing at 70%, according to Yale Program. Even though there is skepticism, climate change is evident: global temperatures have risen by 0.85°C since 1880, the strongest El Niño on record occurred in 2015, and the hottest recorded temperatures occurred in the last three years. In addition to rising ocean temperatures and increased deglaciations, atmospheric CO2 has been on a constant rise since the beginning of the Industrial Era. For 650,000 years, CO2 has never been above 300 ppm, but it is currently around 400 ppm. But what does this all mean in the context of Australia and the Great Barrier Reef?

In October 2007, 86 experts released Climate Change and the Great Barrier Reef: A Vulnerability Assessment, which assessed the potential impacts of global warming on the Great Barrier Reef. It listed the following effects that would have the greatest impact on islands, coral and wildlife: higher air temperature, sea level rise, higher ocean temperatures, changes to rainfall and clouds, increased storm severity, increased atmospheric CO2 concentration, and increasing acidity of the ocean. Some of these impacts are more of a long-term concern, but some of them have already led to extinction of unique species found in Australia.

Rising global temperature leads to increased disease threat: immune systems of plants and animals are weakened, and the environmental conditions become more favorable for tropical diseases and pathogenic vectors. The hotter and dryer conditions lead to increased severity of forest fires as well. The frequency of extreme heat days have already led the White Lemuroid Ringtail possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides) to ecological extinction. Sea turtles have also been taking a toll due to rising temperatures. During incubation of the eggs, the sand temperature determines the gender of the turtle. Initially, the gender ratio was being skewed toward the females, but the sand temperatures have increased to the point where the eggs cook and fail to hatch. Deglaciation of polar ice caps has led to rising sea levels, estimated at 3.2 mm/year. The increased sea levels flood urban areas, particularly on the coast. This also affects erosion of cays found in the ocean, and has actually led to the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola) in 2016.

Increased ocean temperatures leads to higher frequency of ENSO events, where upwelling is reduced in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and decreases productivity and plankton biomass. This then impacts species higher in the food chain. Coral bleaching events have directly impacted the Great Barrier Reef. Corals have a unique symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, but the increased heat response causes the corals to expel them, leaving the coral bleach-white, and this can lead to coral death. The Great Barrier Reef is composed of vast coral reef systems, and coral bleaching directly impacts the structure of the ecosystem. Some reefs impacted are Orpheus Island and Mission Beach. The increased global bleaching events put these unique ecosystems at risk, sometimes to the point where they are unrecoverable.

Changes to weather patterns have also impacted the coasts of northern Australia. There has been frequent releases of sand plumes near the mouth of rivers. This release of sand and mud settles on the coast and smothers sea grass, an essential food source for dugongs and sea turtles. This has also led to the death of mangroves on the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the recent decade, there has been an increased frequency and intensity of cyclones. The rising sea temperature has contributed to the intensity of cyclones, as storm cells gain their energy from warm coastal waters. There has been 10 cyclones since 2005 that have hit the Great Barrier Reef. Daydream Island, a resort off the coast of Queensland, was destroyed by Cyclone Debbie several months ago. In 2009, Cyclone Hamish, a category 5 cyclone, ran parallel across the Great Barrier Reef and caused substantial damage to the reefs and even caused an oil spill off the Sunshine Coast. Storms also destroy cays, which are prime nesting habitats for seabirds.

Rising atmospheric CO2 concentration leads to a lower nitrogen to carbon ratio, and this causes koalas to intake more eucalyptus leaves to get adequate nitrogen for metabolic processes. The ocean is also a major carbon sink, and dissolution of carbon dioxide has led to ocean acidification. The decreasing pH may cause long-term potential damage to coral reefs and their development because of decreased rate of precipitation of bicarbonates in ocean water.

The Great Barrier Reef has lost 50% of coral in the last 30 years: 50% of this is from increased cyclone intensity, 40% is due to Crown-of-Thorns Starfish outbreaks, and 10% is from the rising ocean temperatures. It is apparent that climate change is impacting the Great Barrier Reef on all fronts, but the question is: can we do something about this?

Ecologists across the globe often have differing views about the most effective way to intervene. In recent years, there has been a dramatic shift in perspective among scientists regarding what the most effective and, more importantly, most realistic approach to preservation is. Malcom Turner, a biologist and manager of field operations for the Great Barrier Reef Heritage Area, explained this shift in perspective as the adoption of a single, key concept: resilience.

According to Turner and many others in his field, the aim of conservation should be to focus on protecting the most resilient areas rather than the most vulnerable areas. This goes against a widely accepted belief that for conservation to be effective, ecosystems must be repaired and returned to their previous state prior to any human impacts. Turner claims that, “in reality, nothing is pristine or untouchable anymore. If you really want to protect something, you must be hands-on”. (Malcolm Turner. Interview.) Turner’s most significant project involving the adoption of this approach has been working to increase the resilience of coral reefs.

As ocean temperatures rise, coral reefs are put under greater stress and are, thus, at a higher risk of bleaching. Even a temperature change of 2 degrees Celsius can cause massive damage to a healthy reef. Unlike other marine animals, corals are unable to relocate and simply migrate to a cooler area when their surrounding temperatures rise. In addition, corals are limited in the areas they can colonize because they require very specific living conditions in order to thrive, which include a shallow substrate to build on and adequate sunlight exposure. As a result, Turner’s project involved accepting that the water temperatures will rise and, thus, working to increase the resilience of the corals this will impact.

The figure to the right illustrates the mechanism of increasing resilience of reef systems. If the condition of the reef (shown by the green line) deteriorates to the point where it crosses the resilience threshold (represented by the white dotted line), it will no longer be able to bounce back and recover. This means that either a single bleaching event will go on for long enough or bleaching events will be so frequent that the corals will not be able to recover and the reef as a system will die. Rather than attempting to reduce coral bleaching events that are caused by a variety of complex reasons, reducing the resilience threshold of the reef instead can allow the opportunity for it to rebound naturally. Reef systems experience a loss of resilience when external factors lead to shifts in ecosystem functions, a reduction in species diversity, and a loss or reduction of productivity in the system. Examples of key external factors are water pollution, global climate change, and commercial or recreational fishing. (Turner. Interview.) While focusing on reducing these external factors could improve resilience, another method could be to identify and research hotspots for resilience: areas where corals are naturally more resilient and bounce back from bleaching events more quickly and effectively. Examples of corals found to be naturally more resilient are those located in cooler currents, areas of upwelling, and areas in deeper water. (Turner. Interview.) By choosing to concentrate on understanding and preserving these more resilient areas, scientists like Turner believe they can make the most meaningful impacts on coral reefs as well as other habitats under stress to protect them from the threats of climate change.

Image 1: Example of coral bleaching.

Image 2: Cyclone records along Great Barrier Reef.

Adaptions and Topography of Australia

By: Despina Giotis and Rebekah Appleton

Despite being comparable in size to the United States, Australia has considerably less people. This is because 70% of Australia is arid land but it is still very unique in organism diversity and landscape. Some of the landscapes include grasslands, rainforests mangroves and, of course, The Great Barrier Reef. Many arid areas have temporary rivers and have lower levels of nutrients in the soil, while grasslands have more plants, composed of mostly grasses and small shrubs with a range of marsupials. Unlike the other landscapes, Rainforests get lots of rain and have dense canopies with large trees and support a large population of birds and mammals. Along the coast there are also bioregions that increase the aquatic diversity of Australia. Mangroves are able to survive in high salinity water which allows for them to survive in marine ecosystems. One of the more well-known bioregions for Australia is The Great Barrier Reef which is incredibly diverse in the marine life that it supports, such as the corals that make up the coral reef. Queensland alone has about 15 different bioregions with the Brigalow belt being the largest bioregion, named for the common Brigalow Acacia which survives in low soil nutrient levels. Since Australia is also incredibly close to Antarctica, the South is known for having cold wet winters, which could receive large amounts of snow, and hot dry summers. The North has warmer drier winters and wetter summers.

Australia gained a lot of this unique diversity due to years of isolation as an island, however, Australia was not always isolated. Australia used to be a part of a large group of continents and countries called Gondwana around 170 million years ago. Gondwana was made of India, Australia, Antarctica, South America, and Africa and a few assortments of countries. Fossils of a specific fern, Glossiopteris, are found on all 7 of the mentioned land masses which is how scientists determine that these countries used to be connected. Around 80 million years ago Australia was still connected to Antarctica and South America and shares commn plants such as Eucalypts. Overtime the diversity of Australia has changed. Australia once contained many species of Megafauna some that could have been related to current species such as the koala. The Megafuana has since gone extinct maybe due to pressures such as hunting. In 1788 white settlers began settling in Australia, which caused many changes in the local landscapes and organisms. Hunting not only caused the extinction of the Megafuana, but the addition of the settlers hunting caused the extinction of species such as the Thylacine which was a marsupial tiger. The loss of these orgasms causes a huge loss in diversity of very unique animals. The Thylacine, for example, was the last of the predatory marsupials and many of Australia’s organisms face the same threat such as the koala that was hunted for its fur. The white settlers also introduced animals such as cats and foxes which were intelligent predators and were particularly skilled at catching the local wildlife. Many of the local organisms cannot adapt to these quick changes in survivability.

Before the settlers, the natives were particularly helpful in protecting and controlling the land through fire and care. The settlers, however, caused even more changes in the landscape. The settlers not only began land clearing for cattle farming but they also neglected the landscape’s natural need for controlled fire. This caused the loss of large amount of mangrove systems and loss of habitat such as the fire resistant landscape of the sugar glider. Recently, people have rediscovered the need for fire and reintroduced that aspect to the landscape, however, now they are facing problems with pollution and energy use. Since then, many areas of Australia has been deemed a national park such as Magnetic Island. These protected areas are vital to the future of Australia’s organisms and with increased protection, Australia hope to see some of the damage mitigated in the future.

Aside from rainforests and the mountain vegetation of the east, most plants in Australia must be adapted to dry conditions and have the ability to deal with water stress. The soil is often made of clay and is low in nutrients. Specifically, Magnetic Island is considered a dry tropical region and has a warm dry season, which is known as the winter, and a hot wet season, which is known as the summer. Magnetic Island’s soil has even less nutrients and is made of sand like pieces of broken off sedimentary granite, therefore it does not hold water very well. Once the ground is socked the sandy sediment is carried away with runoff water, making erosion a prominent issue. The plants in this region are brightly colored and have scents in order to attract birds and insects for pollination. The plants depend on different combinations of wind, water, and fire dispersal methods. They often have thickened plant cuticles and low numbers of stomata. Plant cuticles are lipid bilayers with wax incorporated into them, which create a protective film covering on the outer surfaces of vascular plants. Plant cuticles function as barriers for water permeability and aid in preventing evaporation of water. The main function of the stomata is to regulate gas exchange in vascular plants. Glucose synthesis occurs when the stomata is open because carbon dioxide enters the leaf, leading to the release of water and free oxygen. The number of stomata per unit area is labeled as stomata density; therefore the higher stomata density leads to increase uptake of carbon dioxide and increased release of water. Since water is scare in the dry terrain of Australia many of the vascular plants have decreased numbers of stomata and thickened plant cuticles in order to conserve water by decreasing excessive evaporation that may lead to desiccation. In order to be protected the most plants are armed with chemicals or spines. Magnetic Island also has numerous trees that are considered sclerophyll, which means the leaves are hard and thick. Sclerophyll forests have adapted to withstand heat, low nutrient soils and fires. Some examples of sclerophyll trees on Magnetic Island include: Eucalypts (gumtreees), Acacias (wattles), and Melaleucas (paperbacks). In order for caps to fall off and bloom Eucalypts must be exposed to fire. Likewise, Acacias have epitomic buds that only sprout after fire. Acacias also have fire resistant bark that prevents them from dying, which is why these trees tend to dominate after forest fires.

Not only have the Australian plants learned to adapt to the dry conditions, but the animals have as well. One such example is the Water Holding Frog who covers itself in a cocoon and then buries itself underground for months at a time waiting on rain. It does this in order to conserve water. Another example of an exceptional animal that uses water efficiently is the Thorny Devil. The body of the Thorny Devil is covered in spikes, which assists them in obtaining water the dry sandy parts of Australia. Early in the day they rub against spinifex, a tough, spiny grass, in order to absorb the morning dew. The moisture of the dew runs directly into their mouths through grooves that are between the spikes. There is more information about the Thorny Devil in the video that is linked below.



Reef Ecologic and the Reef Rescue Project

By: Peggy Mullin and Caleigh Sewell

We sat down, ready for our first day of active learning on Magnetic Island. We had been promised a lecture on algal-dominated coral reefs, and Dr. Andrew Skeat arrived to Bungalow Bay right on time to share his information. He began with a simple question: “Do you think you can make a difference on the reef?” The gathered students had mixed responses about the effectiveness of their efforts, from both direct and indirect perspectives.

Next up was a video; a production put together by a group of students from our USA neighbors, Virginia Tech, last summer. The video was an impressive compilation and described in simple terms how algae comes to dominate a reef. When a colony of coral becomes stressed, it ejects its symbiotic microalgae into the water column, resulting in a loss of color or “bleaching.” This “bleaching” is not immediately indicative of coral death, but rather a sign of significant stress. After these symbiotes are ejected, the coral colony has a short period of time (which varies from species to species) during which it can resume a healthy state and re-accept its symbiotic algae.

(Watch the video below!)


However, if the coral’s environmental conditions do not become restored within the range of health for that species, the individual coral polyps will die and the organism will be unable to live on. At this point, the reef ecosystem crosses the threshold to an alternative stable state; algae becomes dominant on the skeletal reef structure and is allowed to overgrow, outcompeting other colonizers for space and overtaking the once-vibrant reef.

Andrew explained that coral bleaching is a natural and regular process in the marine environment; what is different now, however, is that the intensity and frequency of coral bleaching events has increased to unprecedented levels in recent years. Some of the most notable examples are the mass bleaching events which struck the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef in 2015 and 2016. There are many possible reasons for this increase, but the most universally accepted reason is a combination of several environmental pressures, including: poor water quality, climate change, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and Crown-of-Thorns sea star outbreaks.

On the left, a ‘healthy’ reef ecosystem. On the right, an algal-dominated ecosystem.

So what to do about this algal-dominated alternative stable state? Many examples of this state can be seen just off the coast of Magnetic Island, especially in Geoffrey Bay. The organization Andrew represents, Reef Ecologic, aims to both inform the public about this problem and to involve citizens and tourists in management efforts for reef health. For our purposes, this meant that we would be spending the day surveying the algal-dominated reef, defining a transect area, and physically removing macroalgae in the hopes of freeing up complex substrate for possible settlement by new live coral polyps.

Around 10:00 am, we headed over to the southern part of the island to grab wetsuits and then made our way to Geoffrey Bay where we would be snorkeling for the day. From there we divided into two groups, one lead by Brett Flemming and the other lead by Andrew. Brett’s group went on a snorkel trail to explore the reef a bit while Andrew’s group removed seaweed from the nearshore corals. This task required several materials and prior knowledge to begin: a 4 x 4 meter quadrat to mark the area where we would be removing seaweed, two seaweed collection bags, gloves, and scrapers. Andrew explained that we would set up the quadrat in an area with a lot of seaweed growth.

Then two people would hold the seaweed bags while their partners would dive down and remove seaweed. In order to remove the seaweed from the coral, you could either grab the seaweed and twist/yank it off or you could use the scraper to get a cleaner removal. After Andrew explained the process, we divided the tasks and headed out into the water. Part of the experiment was to see how much seaweed we could collect in a given amount of time, to determine the productivity of the process. The first group was given 15 minutes to remove seaweed and the second group was given 10 minutes (we were running low on time). After our time was up, we returned to shore and weighed both bags, removed the seaweed, weighed the empty bags, and subtracted that weight from the total weight. The first group collected approximately 8 kilos and the second group collected approximately 14 kilos. Some factors that explain why our group (the second group) collected so much more seaweed (in less time) was because we went second so we had some time to practice snorkeling and duck diving before the seaweed removal. Also, we initially divided into groups based on experience and ability and our group was the group with more experienced snorkelers.

One student poses with her ‘catch’!

Bags of collected macroalgae

The next task was to separate the seaweed into two piles: seaweed with the holdfast and seaweed without the holdfast. The holdfast is the hard, rock-like area on the bottom of the seaweed that attached the seaweed to the coral. The reason we sorted them was because if the holdfast was still connected to the seaweed then we know the seaweed was completely removed and will no longer grow in that area. If the holdfast wasn’t connected to the seaweed, then its base is still attached to the coral somewhere and will continue to grow. The results from separating the seaweed and weighing the pile with the holdfast were a little inconclusive because they weighed about the same as when we weighed all the seaweed together. This is most likely because the seaweed gathered a lot of sand in the sorting process, which added a fair amount of weight to the seaweed. After taking all of our measurements, all of the seaweed was gathered and taken to a local compost area.

One team of collectors poses with their bags!

Since we were such a small group and didn’t spend much time removing seaweed, the actual impact of our efforts on the coral reef were minute. But the point of the activity was not to save the reef in one day, it was to bring awareness to the issue and show how easy it is to do small, beneficial tasks. This activity was also beneficial to Andrew because now he knows that he could easily take volunteer groups out on the reef and do the same thing we did for longer amounts of time. Through collective effort and awareness, more people will be inclined to do their part to save the reef, whether it’s directly removing seaweed so the coral can grow, or using less energy and fuel to slow the effects of climate change.

Billabong Sanctuary

Dingoes – Taylor Woollen

After learning the story behind Seinfeld’s “a dingo ate my baby” at Hidden Valley, we of course immediately congregated around the dingo sitting on a rock waiting to have its picture taken with you. In the Lindy Chamberlain case, dingoes are portrayed as scary creatures waiting to steal your child as soon as you turn your back on it. But at Billabong we were able to understand a different side of these dog-like animals. I, of course, had my turn taking a picture with one of the dingoes, and then pet the others when I was finished. In this case they were not baby stealing, terrifying creatures but sweet and sensitive animals. They seemed like they could be live in a home as someone’s pet even.

Many Australians do not see dingoes in this way. Even though they are located in most of the country, except Tasmania, they are seen as animals worth purging. We learned that they are similar to wolves because they form packs, they defend territories, and they can have coordinated hunting, and we learned that dingoes are quick to learn and adapt, they are neophobic (meaning they are cautious of new things), and can read human gestures. The dingo is the apex predator on mainland Australia and the largest terrestrial predator in the country. Dingoes are beneficial to their environment because they control feral animal as well as native animal populations. They prevent mesopredator release, which means that they kill and/or eat feral cats, foxes, and pigs, so these populations of invasive animals do not experience a population boom. Dingoes also control the populations of kangaroos and wallabies, and a trophic cascade is evident in ecosystems with these animals because when dingoes kill kangaroos, this increases the population of plants that kangaroos eat.

Reasons why dingoes are not seen in a positive light in Australia include conflicts with the livestock industry, people, threatened species, and hybridization. There have only been two recorded dingo attacks ending in fatality, which sheds light on the idea that dingoes are not as dangerous as they are made out to be. Even though dingoes are classified as vulnerable and native in Australia, they are also considered a pest, so they are not protected. Also landowners are legally required to kill dingoes found on their properties. Dingo management is done through baiting, trapping, shooting, fencing, guard animals, and more. Dingoes are not often found in the south east part of Australia because a large fence was built to keep them out. This fence has caused huge impacts on the rest of the ecosystem because this fence keeps out all other large animals as well. Animals dying of starvation or dehydration are not able to travel across the fence in hope of survival, so many animals such as emus have been found dead along the fence. Killing dingoes is also a tradition in Australia, which is passed down through generations. People teach their family members how to kill dingoes and spread negative images of the dingoes, which continues the cycle of viewing these animals in a negative light.

Crocodiles – Haley Beeson

Crocodiles are known around the world for their dangerous qualities and number of human attacks. However, this species was brought into further detail by a ranger at Billabong Sanctuary. Crocodiles, alligators, gharials, and caimans are reptiles that belong to the group known as crocodilians. This group is classified by their large, long, lizard-shaped bodies, and two pairs of short legs. Crocodiles are a unique species apart from the alligator, with a broader snout and teeth aligned with an overbite. Specifically, the Saltwater Crocodile or the Crocodylus Porosus is the world’s largest living reptile with males reaching lengths of up to 19 feet and over 2000 pounds and females reaching lengths up to 9 feet and over 300 pounds. Their habitat includes the coastal islands, coastlines, estuaries, rivers, creeks, and wetlands. Regardless of their name, these crocodiles can live in both saltwater and freshwater along with hypersaline waters. Their location is not determined by the quality, type, or turbidity levels of water but rather the geographic position and what types of food are present. For example, mountain ranges serving as a geographic barrier may limit this species’ presence throughout Queensland, Australia.

Their bodies are adapted to an aquatic environment. Bony plates known as osteoderms cover the skin, transferring heat to the rest of the body via tiny blood vessels. This allows the crocodile to remain mostly underwater during hunting while still receiving the heat from sunlight it needs to survive. Juvenile crocs rarely expose their backs for safety reasons. Therefore, they leave majority of body under water while exposing these osteoderms to capture heat. Also, the eyes, nostrils, and ears close under water for protection by a small layer of skin covering. With the ears closed under water, dots along jawline serve as a sensory organ that picks up on vibrations throughout the water. They are able to remain partially submerged or completely underwater due to the fact that they can hold their breath for up to an hour refusing their heart rate to 2-3 beats per minute. The crocodile can bite under water as well without the worry of water entering stomach and lungs.

This species has one of strongest bite forces of any animal alive today with a force of up to 3700 pounds per square inch, enabling them to have somewhat dull teeth and still remain effective predators. Crocodiles eat a variety of fish, birds and other animals. A major hunting limitation is that their legs prove to be useless for everything besides getting them out of the water as well as their heavy tail only enabling them to stand upright in the water but overall serving as an anchor. Since 2000, there have been 22 human fatalities in Australia by the cause of crocodiles, with two during 2017. Crocodile farms beginning in the twentieth century, along with various other unsustainable hunting practices left less than 3000 saltwater crocodiles left in Australia’s Northern Territory. Since 1970, this species has been protected and are gradually coming back to their previous numbers. Estuarine Crocodile Management oversees industry and development to ensure proper compliance with guidelines.

3 year old crocodile


Management – Sophie Purut

After learning about dingoes and crocodiles, the UNC students were posed a question by Jules, the ranger at Billabong Sanctuary- “What are the differences in how crocodiles and dingoes are managed, and why?” What seems like a simple question reveals the deeper beliefs and complexities in human attitude toward these two different creatures. One animal is managed with relocation to various animal establishments, with the other being actively hunted and trapped, showing that economic incentives and emotional opinions play a huge part in animal management.


So what are the intricacies of these two management styles? In regards to crocodiles, it includes a process of zoning, educating the public, and relocating crocodiles to zoos or farms to be used for breeding or educational awareness. With the zoning process, each area has different criteria and leniences in regards to a crocodile presence. For example, in an area marked Zone A (where there should be little interaction between crocodiles and humans), any and all crocodiles are removed. An area marked Zone D, however, is a location where crocodiles are known to be transitory, so monitoring for crocs over 2 meters and signage is considered all that is necessary. All crocodiles that are caught are humanely transported to live out the rest of their natural life in breeding programs or at zoos, a stark contrast to the treatment of dingoes.


While crocodiles seem more menacing and dangerous than dingoes, they do not pose the same economic losses to livestock as the small, more dog-like dingo. Seen as a major threat to sheep, dingoes are actively hunted, baited, trapped, and poisoned. The dingo’s listing as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list but a declared pest in some areas creates murky legislation that hardly protects the animal at all. Some landowners do choose deterrence practices, such as fences and guardian animals for livestock herds, but these come with their own share of consequences. Fences high enough to keep out a dingo keep out a plethora of other migrating animals as well. Sanctuaries like Billabong are trying to change the public perception of these small predators by letting people take photos with and pet their resident dingoes, but the whole of Australia still has a long way to go in their attitude towards the animal.

TYTO Wetlands: A Vision to Revitalize Ingham

The TYTO Wetlands facilities evolved from a vision to foster an appreciation for nature, encourage tourism to a small Australian town, and preserve the stunning landscape. The founders began with a simple idea to renew Ingham and ultimately gained $6 million total funding from sources like the Queensland 150th Legacy Infrastructure Program to open the TYTO Wetlands center in 2002. In 1996, sugar cane farmers began efforts to expand their crop into this valuable land containing habitats for a multitude of animals including the threatened eastern grass owl. The founders hoped to protect the land and turn it into an asset for the community that would stimulate the economy and improve overall quality of life for surrounding residents. Developing these 110 hectares of land occurred in two stages. Stage 1 involved restoring the wetlands by planting native trees to build root systems, prevent erosion, and shade out harmful weeds. Other Stage 1 efforts involved building the boardwalks, visitors center, sealed car parks, and other forms of low impact infrastructure to attract visitors and creating a comprehensive management plan to monitor success and maintain the integrity of the land. The second stage involved expanding the facilities by building a technology learning center, regional gallery, business development space, recording studio, and more. It also involved extending the boardwalks so that visitors could explore the land to a greater extent, encouraging visitors to stay longer and interact with the land more so that they may develop a deeper connection with and stronger appreciation for the natural landscape and wildlife living there. Locally, the facilities are used primarily for exercise and education. On an international scale, the world-class destination encourages eco-tourism and immigration to the area. Located away from the main street, the center serves as the heart of the community by revitalizing Ingham with job creation, aesthetic appeal, and natural value. In addition to the ~150,000 annual visitors to the area, the facilities attract niche audiences including birdwatchers hoping to snag a peek at some of the 240 unique bird species in the area. The wetlands are also home to a variety of native Australian wildlife including wallabies, egrets, whistling ducks, magpie geese, turtles, and more. The restored health of the wetlands also benefits surrounding land by preventing harmful runoff into water systems that would have come from the cane farms. Benefits extend even further to enhance the visitors’ health. Programs like 10,000 steps are held to encourage an active lifestyle to improve participants’ emotional and physical health. This program is especially powerful because it reminds people of how different other landscape may have appeared without excessive urbanization or cane farm introduction and instills a sense of responsibility in locals and visitors from abroad to protect the natural value of land. This benefit extends even beyond Australian borders. Human education is key to conservation and an experience in TYTO wetlands may be just what someone needs to think more deeply about the interactions between their daily living habits and their environment.


An archive of the events held at the facilities can be found here:

This image depicts the wetland facilities as they appear today from the outlook point.

This image depicts a sugar cane farm and what the wetland facilities could have ultimately become.

Mungalla and Aboriginal History

By Taylor and Ben

Prior to European colonialism, the Indigenous people inhabited Australia and the Torres Sea Islands for forty thousand years, sustainably living off the land. The population at its peak was around three hundred and fifty thousand, and there were over one hundred tribes throughout the continent. The indigenous people believed that the earth was flat, dark, and devoid of life, but spirits descended from the heavens, created the hills, streams, mountains, oceans, and all other land forms and continued to inhabit the places they created. As a result, the land is deeply sacred to them, and they summarize this by “sick land, sick people”. European colonists arrived in the mid eighteenth century, most notably James Cook, and they declared the entire continent as their own. Upon encountering the indigenous people, they thought they were equivalent to kangaroos, dingoes, and emus and thought it was their purpose to dominate and eradicate them, stemming from Social Darwinism. Newspaper clippings that we saw in the Mungalla Station museum declared that they were savage cannibals and had no language except grunts and screams. The indigenous people sought to distance themselves from the Europeans, because they knew they could not fight against guns, but the Europeans hunted them whenever they encountered them. The colonial governments formed police groups that aimed at systematically destroying aboriginal people and used the indigenous as slaves. In addition, the children were taken away from their parents, forbidden to speak their native language. Indigenous land was taken by the government, and the aboriginals were forced onto reservations that were similar to concentration camps.

Cunningham, an associate of Barnum and Bailey, an international circus, convinced nine aboriginals to accompany him to the United States and Europe as part of a human circus that also had Zulu, Nubian, and Sioux people. They were shown as the lowest form of humanity closest to apes, and millions of people saw them as the circus traveled through countries. While this is horrendously morbid in modern times, this was seen as appropriate and exciting entertainment for the lower and middle class. They were even showcased at the World Fair. As they traveled throughout the Northern Hemisphere, they contracted many diseases like tuberculosis and left to suffer lonely deaths in hotel rooms. Tambo was among the first to die, and upon his death, he was mummified and put in a museum in Ohio. It was only in 1994, one hundred years later, that his body was returned to Greater Palm Island and given a proper and traditional burial he deserved.

The Nywaigi people originally inhabited the lands between Paluma Range and the coast, but the colonial government took their land and leased it to cattle ranchers. Jacob Cassidy was an early owner of cattle lands, but he proactively protected the Nywaigi and other indigenous, arguing for their protection and respect. The land passed to his son, but upon his son’s death, a cattle rancher bought the property. In 2000, the land was auctioned off to the Nywaigi Land Corporation and they began and are currently in the process of returning the land to the ecosystems they remember through their oral history. They still manage cattle, but also have a museum and interactive tour showcasing their culture and way of life.


Degradation of the Wetlands

By Caleigh and Despina

The early European immigrants settled in the Mangalla area (Northeastern Australia) primarily to raise cattle and farm the lands. Unfortunately, the area the Europeans originally settled in had an abundance of mosquitoes and other pests that influenced them to move their homestead elsewhere. Their goal was to move westward across the wetlands, to a drier area with fewer pests. In order to do so, the Europeans constructed a bund (or earth) wall through the wetlands, sturdy enough so they could easily transport their supplies. The wall was never deconstructed after the

Figure 1. Map of Hymenachne intrusion in the Mungalla Station property. Reprinted with permission from Mike Nicholas.

Europeans moved their homestead. The wetlands themselves were an area where the tides of the ocean naturally flowed into freshwater sources, which created a mixture of salt and fresh water, known as brackish water. The bund wall therefore impeded the saline flow into these waters, creating a stark division of salt water and freshwater. The area the Europeans finally resided in continued to be used as a cattle farm and remains one to this day. In the 1990s, farmers introduced an invasive weed called Hymenachne amplexicaulis, or olive weed, that they intended to use as cattle food. Thriving in fresh water one to one and a half meters deep, the wetlands served as the perfect habitat for Hymenachne to flourish. Additionally, the seeds have a 98% germination rate and reproduce asexually, which contributed to their uncontrollable growth in the wetlands. Figure 1 shows the abundance of Hymenachne invading the natural waterbodies of the Mangalla Station property. According to the map, approximately 80% of the waterbodies have been taken over by the invasive Hymenachne. A photographic representation of this invasion can be seen in Figure 2. The Hymenachne plant is the bright green vegetation making

Figure 2. Image of Hymenachne weeds in the wetlands of Mungalla Station. Reprinted with permission from Mike Nicholas.

up most of the photograph. Without the presence of Hymenachne, the bright green areas would have been primarily water. Not only did the weeds dry up the wetlands, but the water that remained contained less than 0.5% dissolved oxygen. Levels of dissolved oxygen this low are unable to support life in the wetlands, destroying the habitats of native plants and animals, and causing the wetlands to resemble swamp-like areas. The construction of the bund wall and the introduction of the Hymenachne led to the degradation of the wetlands, drastically changing its ecosystem.

As evident across the world, the sentiment that money is the root of all evil rings true in Mungalla station, a corner of Australia where an aboriginal family struggles to maintain their identity and culture in the midst of a rapidly changing landscape. Farmers originally ripped out native trees like the sandpaper fig and the native peanut to make room for farming cattle without consideration for the impacts this may have on other animals’ habitats and the ecosystem as a whole. After this, farmers only wanted more and planted the hymenachne amplexicaulis weed to fatten the cattle because it was a substantial grass that grew well even in difficult conditions. However, this presented a slew of ecological implications that farmers did not anticipate including changes to hydrology, compromised wetland functioning, and differing nutrient content.  The weed sucked all the oxygen out of the water, especially in the wetlands which it covered. Like a cancer, it grew uncontrollably to the point that other wildlife lost resources they depended on. As species lower on the food chain died off, their predators equally suffered. This not only impacted local animals like wallabies and magpie geese, but as the water flowed to the ocean, the altered water quality impacted marine animals, coral, and other underwater life. Other invasive species hindering the wetland’s health include the water hyacinth, salvinia, and aleman grass. Figure 3 shows a visual representation of the effects of degradation in the wetlands. The man working there, Buddy, described the interconnectedness of the water systems much like one might describe the human body. The Great Barrier Reef in the ocean was like the heart, pumping water to other systems, the wetlands were like the kidneys, filtering out harmful substances, and the connecting waterways were like the veins. Any blockage or disturbance upsets the entire system. On top of the ecological disruptions, the Nywaigi Traditional Owners were deeply affected on a personal and cultural level due to their strong connection with Mother Earth. They feel the effects much more deeply than we might because they are out interacting with their environment every single day. Buddy explained how magpie geese used to fly in enormous droves that were so thick they blocked out the sunlight and today, their populations are much thinner. The weeds now cover lands that were once made up of purely water and cattle often thwart efforts to plant trees that once lived there, requiring fencing to protect the land. When developing restoration efforts it is important to consider the habits of animals in addition to the cultural significance that the landscape holds for those who live there. We must also remember the harmful motivations that began the positive feedback loop of degradation in the first place and hopefully learn from those mistakes to build a brighter future for all life forms.

Figure 3. These images depict the wetlands before (left) and after (right) degradation. More information can be found at:

How Nywaigi and CSIRO Cooperated through Mutual Respect to Accomplish a Shared Goal

By CJ, Kunal, Sophia, and Peggy

The Nywaigi Aboriginal people, who have inhabited this part of Australia for over 65,000 years, have a saying regarding their intrinsic relationship with the wetland: “Sick country, sick people.” Aboriginal people have a deep cultural and spiritual connection to the land they inhabit. They see the wetlands of Australia as a resource to be nurtured, not used up. As the land suffers, so too do the Indigenous people. Stories passed down to the current generation through Nywaigi elders speak of a time when the land was abundant in wildlife and diverse in nature. Both indigenous and non-indigenous people seek to rejuvenate the landscape to this former state.

Founded in 1916, the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) took over major agricultural and ecological projects in Australia. Taking on the role as a sort of “middle man”, CSIRO is funded by the federal government and international sources but focuses strongly on integrating aboriginal culture and traditions in their projects. The company highly values the input of aboriginal knowledge, especially when it concerns ecological rehabilitation or restoration projects. In Mungalla, the wetland restoration project was initiated at Mungulla Station, after four of the most dangerous and invasive weeds in Australia had overgrown the wetland. Mungulla Station had originally belonged to the Nywaigi Traditional Owners and the project was conducted by consulting indigenous elders on how they wanted their land to look.

While the Nywaigi people have seen the land for its cultural importance due to stories from their ancestors, non-indigenous people have looked at the land and approached it with the goal of using the resources for economic objective. During the pioneer era Australian settlers planted Hymenachne plexicorus, a foreign and invasive plant, in the hopes of allowing it to dot the landscape and create “ponded pastures” for cattle grazing. This plant colonized the wetlands at an alarming rate, overtaking the native plants and completely altering the ecology of the wetlands. Through aiming to utilize the resources of the land for their own gain, non-indigenous settlers unintentionally jeopardized the culturally important landscape of the Nywaigi people. Along with taking their land and dramatically changing the way it was used, settlers forced the Nywaigi families apart and dismantled their culture in the process. In order to begin to solve the issue at hand and return the land to the way the Nywaigi once knew it, there had to be a major collaboration between the non-indigenous and the original owners of the land.

While both CSIRO and the Nywaigi people had the common goal of restoring the wetlands and managing the (rising invasion) of invasive species, they approached the issue from inherently different places – CSIRO from the field of science and ecological reconstruction, the Nywaigi people from preservation of culture, tradition, and a deep emotional connection to their land. Despite differing catalysts for their actions, the two groups each brought vital contributions to the project and worked cohesively to remediate the damage done to the wetlands through mutual respect and cooperation. The Nywaigi people of Mungalla Station continue the legacy of this project, encoura

ging people from all walks of earth to participate in the restoration of their land. For example, we as American science students worked with the people of Mungalla Station to plant trees along the wetlands to help shade out invasive species and help restore the ecosystem.


Science and Tools for Restoration of the Mungalla Wetlands

By Lin, Danny, and Haley

The CSIRO and Nywaigi people adopted a three-pronged approach to the eradication of Hymenachne: remediation, regeneration, and restoration. Remediation focused on eliminating the weeds, while revegetation aimed to reintroduce normal vegetation. These two approaches facilitated the final goal of restoration, the rejuvenation of the entire wetlands ecosystem as a whole, expanding beyond the presence or absence of Hymenachne.

The team first attempted to remove the Hymenachne through chemical means. Glyphosate, a mild herbicide, was methodically applied across the affected wetlands area, both by hand and through large-scale helicopter drops. While glyphosate did successfully kill some of the existing weeds, it was largely ineffective.  Timing was a major issue. Hymenachne flowers annually from January through March, so to break the fertilization cycle the team had to apply the herbicide during January. However, the rainy season in North Queensland runs from December through May, and much of the glyphosate was washed away, rendering it ineffective. The herbicide would also kill natural vegetation as it was applied and as it was washed away into other areas, actually exacerbating the problem as it removed Hymenachne’s competition. After chemical methods failed to produce desired results, the team supplemented herbicides with mechanical methods. Volunteers went in and manually pulled out weeds and seeds. However, Hymenachne is 98% germinable, and any leftover seeds or weed residue readily grew. Heavy machinery was recruited to harvest pieces of weeds off the wetlands and place them on the banks. While this improved the weed removal rates, it required a large time investment and l

Figure 1. Application of chemical herbicide across the degraded wetlands using a helicopter (left). Mechanical removal of a section of the bund wall to restore regular inundations of the wetlands (right).

abor. Some machines, such as bulldozers, also struggled to traverse the wetland terrain. Both chemical and mechanical removal processes also proved quite expensive. Chemical treatments required the purchase of large quantities of herbicide, as well as the periodic rental of helicopters. Meanwhile, mechanical removal methods required the rental of machinery.

Finally, the team tried saline control. Hymenachne thrives in fresh water but will die out at approximately 30% salinity. The bund wall, originally built by settlers to block the tides, had greatly reduced the salinity of the estuarine waters. CSIRO and the Nywaigi people worked together to remove a portion of the wall, hopefully allowing the tides to naturally increase the salinity of the waters. Modeling software was used to map the extent of the salinity changes before the wall was removed. Conductivity sensors were placed across the wetlands to measure salinity changes following the removal of the wall. It was found that the water did indeed increase in salinity after about two inundations, and the plan was incredibly effective. Figure 1 represents use of chemical herbicides using helicopter and also the removal of the bund wall. Hymenachne populations decreased rapidly, and native plants that had been lying dormant began to germinate. With the regrowth of native plants, several native animal species also made their way home to the wetlands. Figure 2 shows the partial restoration of the wetlands after several inundations.

Figure 2. After the removal of the bund wall, salinity levels increased and visibly reduced Hymenachne levels.

Along with saline control methods, revegetation has also been key to the restoration of the wetlands. Native tree species were planted along the riparian regions of the wetlands, and they competed with the weeds for nutrients and sunlight. The revegetation process continues today, with help from Mungalla Station volunteers. A partial restoration of the wetlands has been completed, and the eventual goal is the complete restoration of these wetlands.


Future Prospects

By Sophie, Chloe, and Rebekah

Following the research project of removing the hymenachne, the Nywaigi people are now looking towards what projects can be done for the future. Once the salt water was reintroduced, there was a new problem of salt tolerant weeds including Aleman grass (Echinochloa polystachya). Aleman grass is native to North and South America and forms thick patches in areas that experience flooding and seasonable changes. The current weeds block off the waterways from the coast to the wetland which prevents the flow of water and out competes native species by using up resources such as oxygen in the water. The solution that the Nywaigi and scientists are now using to combat these weeds is to line the edges of their wetlands with native trees. I joined in with the other student from Chapel Hill to plant several trees. Everyone got to plant at least one tree and help with other steps in the planting process. Some of the members dug out the areas while my group allocated the mulch and another group prepared the trees. Since the current weeds require direct sunlight, the trees will provide shade that prevent the plants from growing. The trees also lower the water temperature which increases the quality of the water. The problems that this project is facing is preventing the cows from eating the young trees. Once the trees start to grow the cows will generally leave the area alone in order to find grassier areas. Until then, the Nywaigi people are sectioning off the land where the saplings are growing by using fences to block the cattle from getting to them. Towards the future, the Nywaigi people hope to see more of the native species return and to have the opportunity to live in partnership with the land as their ancestors once did.

Mungalla Station is home not only to an active cattle farm and historical exhibit, but also to wetlands in the process of restoration. However, the UNC students were informed that the wetlands project funding would be ending on June 30, leaving many to question the sustainability of the project. How would this enterprise continue? After some quick digging, it appears the future of Mungalla Station is stable.

We were able to purchase products at the gift shop at the end of our tour, but the store was in the process of being stocked and displayed, leaving items in disarray. The different art pieces and styles of jewelry were beautiful, however, and we almost cleared the store of all their products. Online, the Mungalla Station website did not have an online shop page, but they did list all the prices of their tours and catering. The Hinchinbrook shire website also included details of Mungalla Station tour prices, informing a larger audience of the Mungalla Station story. Through the sale of guided tours and catering, it appears that the continued private restoration of the wetlands by the Nywaigi people will be sustainable and hopefully better the entire natural system of the station.

Mungalla Station also has social visions for the future. Mungalla station aims to support the equal treatment and opportunity of the Nywagi people.  They want to focus on the education and advancement of Nywagi descendants while maintaining their culture. The Nywagi people are behind those of European descendants in education, unemployment, and average pay, but have much higher rates of incarceration. However, it is said there is no difference in performance between a Nywagi descendant with the same education and opportunity as anyone else. Mungalla station aims to support the advancement of Nywagi people by providing jobs and intern opportunities. They also want to continue to educate others on the history of the Nywagi people to acknowledge the past, but move forward to reparation.


Improving Water Quality – The Technology Behind The Effort

The question left standing is if human management practice alone isn’t enough, what else can we do to limit water quality degradation? The technology available is quite extensive, and we learned about multiple way in which implementing different systems and utilizing this technology can improve the health of the great barrier reef through improved water quality. I’ve outlined three of the most significant ones below:


Micro Algae Systems: Microalgae are one of the most important groups of organisms on the planet, producing an estimation of half the oxygen on the planet while decreasing carbon levels in vast amounts. The use of microalgae cultures in water treatment offers a unique solution due to their ability to trap waste water and use inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus for their own growth. Additionally, no secondary pollution occurs due to the algae’s capacity for the removal of some toxic organic compounds and heavy metals. A major benefit of this system is reduced cost due to less energy input, however a significant disadvantage lies in the space requirement (“footprint”). Because photosynthesis is a critical part of the process, the system functions better in warm weather climates and cannot be very deep, meaning it must take up more land horizontally to get the same effect.

A figure of a micro algae system detailing its use of sunlight, nutrient use, and byproducts.


High Efficiency Sediment Basins: This technology functions on sediment trapping, using a flow system where water travels through the basin allowing sediment particles to settle out and be removed from the water before flowing into natural waterways. Many also use a filtration system that uses chemical dosing to flush out pollutants, which is effective but not entirely environmentally sound, as a major constraint is the basins overflowing during large storms. Despite showing significant success, these basins are difficult to place on sites that have large space constraints and are ultimately not very cost effective, as they are very expensive to build, maintain, and operate.

A figure of a high efficiency sediment basin showing inflow, the main basin, and the outlet structure.


Bioreactors:  Like algae systems and sediment basins, the function of bioreactors is essentially to intercept groundwater flow before they enter waterways. These reactors can filter domestic waste to a high enough quality that it can then be discharged to certain waterways or be reclaimed for irrigation purposes. Their main mechanism includes use of a membrane for carbon filtration, denitrification, nutrient removal, and phosphorus removal, some of the biggest parameters for water quality management. Although there are negatives, such as that bioreactors’ filtration abilities have been shown to decrease with time and use, they function with a small environmental footprint and are easy to add retroactively to older wastewater treatment plans.

A figure of a membrane bioreactor and its filtration system.


Ultimately, there is no single, simple solution to improving water quality, but with an increasingly better understanding of how to utilize this technology and improve it along with human management techniques, measurable change is possible. The best bet is to continue to work with people, especially farmers in identified pollutant hotspots, and work towards improved monitoring, modeling, and technology to decrease water quality degradation and improve the health of natural waterways and, in the case of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef.




To read more about waste water treatment in Australia, check out these links:

Water Treatment and Reuse

The Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy outlines water treatment and reuse options in Australia, including membrane filtration, micro-organism treatment, and chemical treatments. This information goes beyond the options what we learned from our speaker at TYTO Wetlands and provides detailed methods along with interesting business applications.


Osmoflo: Water Treatment Systems, Services, & Solutions

Osmoflo is a global desalination and wastewater treatment company that spans many countries including Australia. This website details their current projects, wastewater treatment solutions, and innovative treatment technologies for difficult to treat water.

« Older posts

© 2022

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑